Cruising the U.S.’s vast last frontier, which offers the opportunity to see highlights of the 49th state in a short time, is on many a vacation wish list. Seasoned travelers often opt for small ships, such as a Windstar all-suite power ship with only 212 guests. It can go where large cruise liners can’t and give guests a closer look at Alaska’s bountiful wonders, such as spouting whales and chunks of gigantic glaciers crashing into chilly waters below.
Here are seven shore excursions to put in your cruise log:
Marveling at the world’s largest collection of standing totem poles in Ketchikan
Sitting at the southern end of the Inside Passage north of British Columbia, Ketchikan often serves as a cruiser’s introduction to Alaska. Its centerpiece is nearly 100 tall carved Native American artifacts displayed around and near town, some visible from the street on the tourist bureau’s Ketchikan Walking Tour and many more at the Totem Heritage Center. The center boasts what’s billed as the largest collection of unrestored 19th– century poles as well as masks, ceremonial garb, baskets and historic photographs of villages where the poles were found. You’ll see a “mortuary pole,” honoring a dead person and used to store cremated remains, and a “story pole” detailing a clan’s historical narrative. Travel about three miles south on a shuttle or with a guide to see two dozen more totems at Saxman Native Village. Just north of the city, Totem Bight State Historical Park holds nearly 20 poles, including the imposing Eagle Grave Marker. Travel 10 miles north and see more at Potlatch Totem Park, whose exhibits include five Native Alaskan clan houses.
Experiencing the magnificent Taku Glacier near Juneau
The blue-tinged ice of Taku Glacier is recognized as the deepest and thickest alpine temperate glacier known in the world. It is measured at 4,845 feet (1,477 m) thick, about 58 kilometres (36 mi) long. Taku Glacier – the largest, most impressive and only advancing glacier on the Juneau Icefield. You will board a van for the 15-minute ride to the heliport. Along with the Taku Glacier, you will fly over numerous glacial landscapes, including advancing, retreating, cascading and a one-of-a-kind floating glacier. Under your pilot’s expert guidance, you will get the chance to walk on and explore the ancient landscape, peer down into a crevasse and taste the purity of glacial streams. This tour is perfect for small groups and visits a truly remote, helicopter access only location. The time to see it is soon: it and other Alaska glaciers are shrinking. Visitors also can be ferried to the glacier’s edge, hike to nearby Nugget Falls and see exhibits at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, which is wheelchair accessible.
“Flightseeing” over pristine Misty Fjords National Monument
From the air, cruisers are treated to an unforgettable panoramic view of the 2.3-million-acre preserve east of Ketchikan that has the most wilderness of any national forest in the state and is considered some of the most amazing scenery in Alaska. Those opting for an aerial adventure board a small floatplane in Ketchikan and don headsets to hear the pilot’s comments on what’s beneath them. That includes waterfalls plunging down steep granite cliffs and deep valleys carved long ago by flowing lava. You might spot soaring eagles, brown and black bears, and foraging moose. If you’re lucky, you’ll return with a photo of a whale breaching the surface of Rudyerd Bay. Many tours include landing on a lake and taking a stroll in a forest.
Mushing Huskies on the snow near Juneau
Board a helicopter for a quick flight over ice fields before touching down to take part in one of Alaska’s iconic pastimes. You’ll board a dogsled for a memorable ride on a glacier; not quite the famed Iditarod long-distance race, but fodder for a good tale to tell back home.
Kayaking in Scenic Kenai Fjords National Park
Nearly 40 glaciers flow over the terrain of this pristine wilderness area, where large ships don’t go. Board a zodiac or kayak to see playful otters, sea lions and porpoises — perhaps even a humpback whale. Onboard naturalists and glaciologists will lead these Windstar excursions.
Dropping anchor at a First Nations Community on a little-visited island
Metlakatla, on Annette Island southwest of Ketchikan, is home to the only modern-day settlement of the Tsimshian people in the United States and the sole reservation in Alaska. Visitors to the Annette Island Reserve can see song and dance performances in a traditional longhouse. Also on the island: members of the Tlingit, Aleut, and other Alaskan tribes.
Watching brown and black bears outside Sitka
Bear encounters in a safe environment are guaranteed at the Fortress of the Bear, the largest nonprofit bear rescue facility in the U.S. Not at all like a zoo, Fortress provides a home for orphaned cubs and lets visitors observe the bruins being fed and at play on nearly an acre of land. Sitka itself, with Russian heritage that includes an onion-domed cathedral, is worth a stroll.
When You Go
Windstar offers six cruises that feature Alaska: the 12-day Alaskan Splendors from Vancouver to Seward (Anchorage); the 12-day Islands & Inlets of the Inside Passage from Vancouver to Vancouver; the 14-day Wonders of Alaska & Canada from Seward (Anchorage) to Vancouver; the 13-day Japan & North Pacific Crossing from Tokyo to Seward (Anchorage); the 16-day Aleutians & North Pacific Crossing from Seward (Anchorage) to Tokyo; and the 27-day Star Collector: Alaska Crossing to Japan from Vancouver to Tokyo.
Recognized by the readers of Conde Nast Traveler on the 2016 Gold List of Favorite Cruise Lines and by USA TODAY readers for Best Boutique Cruise Line, Windstar’s fleet of small luxury cruise ships and all-suite power ships with 148 to 310 guests bring you closer to smaller ports and exclusive local experiences around the world. Visit windstarcruises.com or call 1-800-258-7245 for more information.
Kitty Bean Yancey is a former USA TODAY leisure travel writer who writes for a variety of publications and websites.